SOCIAL THEORY AND CONSTRUCTIVISM
Social constructivism has been the most influential post-positivist approach to international theory, gaining significantly greater attention since the end of the Cold War. At the broadest level, social constructivism in global politics challenges the way in which both neorealism and neoliberalism take the essential components (states) and the character of the global or international system (anarchic) for granted, as if states and the system in which they operate were ‘just there’ rather than emerging as products of human agency and in historically contingent circumstances.
The constructivist approach to analysis is based on the belief that there is no objective social or political reality independent of our understanding of it. Constructivists do not therefore regard the social world as something ‘out there’, in the sense of an external world of concrete objects; instead, it exists only ‘inside’, as a kind of inter-subjective awareness. In the final analysis, people, whether acting as individuals or as social groups, ‘construct’ the world in which they live and act according to those constructions. People’s beliefs and assumptions become particularly significant when they are widely shared, especially when they serve to give a community or people a sense of identity and distinctive interests. As such, constructivist analysis highlights the missing dimension to the ‘structure–agent’ debate in global politics. Constructivism stands, in a sense, between ‘inside-out’ and ‘outside-in’ approaches, in that it holds that interactions between agents and structures are always mediated by ‘ideational factors’ (beliefs, values, theories and assumptions). These ideational factors affect both how agents see themselves and how they understand, and respond to, the structures within which they operate. However, this implies that social constructivism is not so much a substantive theory, or set of substantive theories, as an analytical tool, an approach to understanding. One of the most influential formulations of social constructivism was Alexander Wendt’s (see p. 74) assertion that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’. This implies that state behaviour is not determined, as neorealists assert, by the structure of the international system, but by how particular states view anarchy. While some states may view anarchy as dangerous and threatening, others may see it as the basis for freedom and opportunity. An ‘anarchy of friends’ is thus very different from an ‘anarchy of enemies’. What is at stake here is not the objective circumstances that confront a state so much as a state’s self-identity and how it views its fellow states. This can also be seen in relation to nations and nationalism. Nations are not objective entities, groups of people who happen to share a common cultural heritage; rather, they are subjective entities, defined by their members, through a particular set of traditions, values and sentiments. Constructivist analysis highlights the fluidity of world politics: as nation-states (see p. 164) and other key global actors change their perception of who or what they are, their behaviour will change. This stance may have optimistic or pessimistic implications. On the one hand, it leaves open the possibility that states may transcend a narrow perception of self-interest and embrace the cause of global justice, even cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, it highlights the possibility that states and other international actors may fall prey to expansionist and aggressive political creeds. However, critics of constructivism have argued that it fails to recognize the extent to which beliefs are shaped by social, economic and political realities. At the end of the day, ideas do not ‘fall from the sky’ like rain. They are a product of complex social realities, and reflect an ongoing relationship between ideas and the material world.
Is global politics best explained in terms of ‘structures’ (the context within which action takes place) or in terms of ‘agency’ (the ability of human actors to influence events)?
A variety of approaches to global politics have a structuralist character; that is, they adopt what can be called an ’outside-in’ approach to understanding. The nature of these contexts varies, however. Neorealists (sometimes called structural realists) explain the behaviour of states in terms of the structure of the international system, while Marxists emphasize the crucial impact of international capitalism, sometimes seen as a ‘world-system’ by neoMarxist theorists. Even liberals recognize the limitations imposed on individual states by the complex web of economic interdependence into which they have been drawn, particularly by the forces of globalization. One of the attractions of structuralism is that, by explaining human behaviour in terms of external, or exogenous, factors, it dispenses with the vagaries of human volition and decision-making, allowing theories to claim scientific precision. Its disadvantage, though, is that it leads to determinism, which rules out free will altogether. Alternative theories that stress agency over structure subscribe to intentionalism or voluntarism, which assigns decisive explanatory importance to the self willed behaviour of human actors. These theories have an ‘inside-out’ character: they explain behaviour in terms of the intentions or inclinations of key actors. These theories are therefore endogenous. Examples include ‘classical’ realism, which holds that the key to understanding international relations is to recognize that states are the primary actors on the world stage and that each state is bent on the pursuit of self-interest. Liberals are also inclined towards ‘inside-out’ theorizing, in that they stress the extent to which states’ foreign policy orientation is affected by their constitutional make-up (and particularly whether they are democratic or authoritarian). Although intentionalism has the advantage that it reintroduces choice and the role of the human actor, its disadvantage is that it is ‘reductionist’: it reduces social explanation to certain core fact about major actors, and so understates the structural factors that shape human action. In the light of the drawbacks of both structuralism and intentionalism, critical theorists in particular have tried to go beyond the ‘structure versus agency’ debate, in acknowledging that, as no neat or clear distinction can be drawn between conduct and the context within which it takes place, structure an